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Contemporary Ear

Talking tones with Richmond Symphony's new music director, Steven Smith.

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The 18-month quest for a new music director to lead the Richmond Symphony began with 240 applicants. They were winnowed down to nine finalists, who each took the 70-member orchestra out for a closely scrutinized spin.

Steven Smith is the last baton-wielder standing.

Reached by phone in New Mexico — for the past 11 seasons he's directed the Santa Fe Symphony and Chorus — Smith is enthusiastic about creating musical programs that balance the fresh and the familiar.

“Some of the audience would be happy to hear the same work repeatedly year after year,” he says. “Others get bored, and would rather hear new pieces. We are always trying to serve the audience in as many ways as we can, both by presenting the great warhorses, which are warhorses after all because they are great pieces and ought to be played, and programming them with works people don't know as well.”

Smith's affinity for new music is more than rhetorical; he's music director for the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, a Grammy Award-winning ensemble specializing in contemporary pieces. An award-winning composer whose recent work is written for acoustic chamber and choral groups, Smith retains his early interest in the potential of cutting edge computer and electronic approaches.

“Finding a way to fuse the excitement of new technologies, which seem to be coming out every week, represents a huge opportunity in the future of music,” he says. “I have decided over the past few years that the way we use the word ‘classical' is archaic. … There are so many kinds of music going on today, and such an overlap between what used to be strictly proscribed genres, that it has become impossible to call something purely classical or purely jazz or purely pop. There is so much cross-fertilization that today I prefer to think of it as simply orchestral music, and that encompasses a wide variety of possibilities.”

Innovative ways of presenting music don't require modern gadgetry. Sometimes it's as simple as programming an evening so that the work of one composer illuminates another, as Smith did in his final try-out that contrasted Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony with Beethoven's “Emperor” Concerto. “There is something very compelling about their musical approach, particularly the rhythmic development … that creates an overall sense of structure, and a great sense of energy that helps tell a story,” he says.

His love of the music is evident when he discusses the parallels of the two composers' careers, from early assimilation of influences through a rich, mature middle period to late works touched by austerity and introspection. While the conversation ranges over a variety of composers — Smith is particularly fond of Berlioz — it's obvious that he connects to them not as historical treasures but as vibrant, immediate personalities.

“These pieces sound like they could have been written yesterday,” Smith says. “They are so imaginative and modern … whatever ‘modern' means. They transcend time and place, but they are also very specifically connected. The wonderful thing about music is that it can be so many things all at once.”
Smith hopes to enhance the musical presentation by bringing in guest lecturers, or pairing the great dramatic pieces — Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” for example, or Grieg's score for Ibsen's “Peer Gynt” — with performances of the plays. He's also interested in taking the orchestra into new environmental contexts.

“Richmond has such a rich architectural history, it would be interesting to pursue performances in alternative spaces,” Smith says. What he doesn't think will work is simply mashing the arts together. “I don't like the idea of showing pretty pictures while we play,” Smith says. “For me it detracts from both. I would be more inclined to pursue a unique project that would unite a composer and a video or visual artist in some way that could create a new work where the elements are meant to be part of a simultaneous experience.”

In the end the objective is to draw new listeners, not so much to be relevant as to communicate relevance to a potential audience increasingly plugged into ever-more convenient, isolating alternatives. “We are competing with that,” Smith says. “But what we offer is a great human experience, and a shared communal, emotional bond that is unique to live performance. It's not about us playing for them. It's about sharing the music together.” 

Richmond's resources, including its education and community-engagement potential, seem to open a wealth of possibilities, but central to Smith's nascent plans is the Richmond Symphony itself. “The musicians that make it up are extraordinary,” he says. “I've done three concerts in the course of the search, each very different, each very rewarding. I've loved working with this group of musicians, and I am looking forward to developing the kind of relationship one has on a month-to-month, day-to-day basis.”

It's never too late to learn a language, Smith insists, especially one with so much to say, like orchestral music. He says there are great possibilities. “I know that it is a relatively small percentage of the population that has any interest in classical music,” Smith says. “Still, I am convinced that music has the capability of speaking to many more people than we do at the moment.”

Steven Smith's inaugural concert as music director of the Richmond Symphony, “An Evening with Gil Shaham,” is Saturday, April 24, at Richmond CenterStage. Tickets cost $27-$77. Information at richmondsymphony.com.

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